Can the United Methodist Church Reform Itself?

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

The United Methodist Church is one of those phenomena – like baseball or public education – that until recently grew best in American soil but now seems to be fading here and flourishing elsewhere. It is the second-largest Protestant Church behind the Southern Baptists. Its broad representation is illustrated by the saying that if you want to know who the next president will be, just poll a sample of United Methodists.

But the church suffers from declining membership – from 10.6 million in 1970 to 8.2 million in 2010 – and a crisis of confidence and, some would say, of relevance. (Full disclosure: I am not a United Methodist, but I did work briefly last year for the Church’s Florida Conference.)

About 1,000 delegates are in Tampa this week for the quadrennial meeting of the General Conference, which determines policy for the church. And there is a distinct difference about this year’s meeting.

Going back to the 1970s, these conferences have seen bitter fights over the role of gays and lesbians, and whether they may be ordained or whether clergy may preside at their union services. While that fight continues, this year’s energy is focused on a proposal to restructure the denomination.

It is an internal matter, to be sure, but Wednesday’s vote to approve a restructuring plan suggests the church may have summoned the will to overcome some of the institutional inertia dragging it down.

Reformers, including a majority of its Council of Bishops, wanted a more unified structure for its national agencies. These agencies — which oversee everything from education to missionaries to accounting — are all independent, each with its own board. The plan approved Wednesday would create a central council and eliminate some agencies.

“So little of our alignment matches our stated mission. This is an attempt to get better alignment,” Bishop William Willimon of the Church’s North Alabama Conference told me last week.

But many agencies have vocal constituencies who oppose the changes. Some suspect the reformers want to take the church in a more conservative direction, reducing or eliminating agencies devoted to social activism in favor of an emphasis on church growth and evangelism.

The proposal appeared in jeopardy last week when a committee charged with refining the legislation could not agree. That impasse is illustrative of how a denomination once united around the twin poles of personal piety and ministries of compassion has badly splintered into ideological camps. Willimon said that had the plan failed, it would have confirmed his worst fears about the state of the church.

The restructuring won’t impact most local United Methodist congregations, except maybe how much they will be asked to contribute to keep the national agencies running. As Willimon put it, “What happens in the local church is infinitely more important than what happens at General Conference.”

But despite pockets of success, local churches reflect the malaise of the United Methodist Church in microcosm. In Florida, membership continues to decline and age, despite the efforts of the last two bishops to reverse the trends.

United Methodist leaders were hopeful the restructuring plan might help the church focus more on its essential tasks. But it strikes me as a bit like trying to turn the Titanic.

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